Henry Ossawa Turner (1859-1937) was an African-American artist whose father was a minister and mother was a teacher. He grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There, his training included the Academic style of the era. Thomas Eakins, who taught there, also emphasized realistic studies of anatomy. In 1891, Turner moved to Paris to be free of the prejudice he encountered in the US, and there he studied the realistic depictions of everyday people that he saw in paintings at the Louvre. His painting style, materials, and techniques grew from all these influences. He is best known for his religious paintings and for paintings of African-American family life. He immersed himself in the settings of the paintings to ensure their realism.
In 1893, having returned to Philadelphia for a visit, he painted “The Banjo Lesson”. This 49”x35.5” oil painting is done on canvas using the techniques of realism. He realistically depicts an intimate, private interaction between an older man and a boy as the man teaches the youth to play the banjo. His sense of anatomy and weight distribution add to the realism, as does the facial and body language. Their clothing, the room, the banjo, and other objects lead to the sense that you are seeing real people in a real room. His use of color and light sources enhance the realistic technique while also including an expressionistic sense of atmosphere.
In “Spinning by Firelight” Tanner’s realism is tempered by impressionistic elements. This oil on canvas 46.5”x66.5” work, completed in 1894, was preceded by photographs and illustrations of the subject. He realistically depicts clothing, the room, and objects, but not in crisp detail, and has blurred the spinning of the spokes of the wheel. He again uses color and light to add a sense of space and mood.